New toy: The Notion Ink Adam

Two days ago I received a product I had ordered in February: a tablet computer, Adam, designed and sold by a Bangalore-based start-up, Notion Ink, but manufactured (like most electronic products these days) in China. This tablet had received a huge amount of hype after CES 2010, skepticism since then as the company seemed to struggle to put together a working product, hype again starting in late 2010 (when they announced pre-orders), extremely good coverage at CES 2011 (Slashgear, Engadget — click there for pics and videos), and then — mostly silence. Once touted as a possible iPad-killer, now it is one of many tablets on the market running Google’s Android operating system, and it has a long, long way to go before it can think of catching up with Apple.

The reason is only partly the quality of the product (though it is that too): it appears, mainly, to be production-related. The company has only announced two pre-orders, and not announced how many devices have been ordered, but it appears to be a few thousand at most. They have struggled to meet those orders. On March 29, the company’s CEO, Rohan Shravan, announced on his blog that every order has finally been shipped. He also described some of the issues they have been having, and the steps being taken (including changing the manufacturer). The company is yet to announce another pre-order. (Also, it seems that, until they enter retail, they will no longer ship to India due to customs issues — which is odd since the majority of delays, as described by Rohan himself, have nothing to do with Indian customs.)

So, if you are in a hurry, don’t think about getting the Adam. If you live in India, you are unlikely to be able to get it anytime soon. But if you are willing to wait, should you hold out? Here are my impressions.

HARDWARE

The major selling point, for me, was the (optional) “transflective” display, made by Pixel Qi. This screen, the manufacturers claim, is readable even with the backlight turned off (though the colours are desaturated) — so the device can be used in sunlight, and the power savings are immense. So, in theory, the device works both as an e-ink reader (like Amazon’s Kindle) and as a tablet computer (like the iPad).

Outdoors, indeed the screen is very readable with the backlight off. However, it does not look like paper: the background is, at best, a light grey, not white, and the blacks are not very black, so the contrast will not compare with a printed book (I don’t have an e-ink reader to compare with). Nevertheless, it seems to me that it will be reasonably comfortable to use outdoors. Indoors, the backlight is needed, but I find that it can be left at its lowest setting and is extremely comfortable to use: it is significantly less bright than my laptop screen (barely brighter than a sheet of white paper, in fact), and very easy on the eyes, while reproducing colours very well. To me, it is worth the money.

Otherwise, the machine specifications compare well to other tablets — even to the iPad 2. Instead of front and back cameras, it has a single camera that swivels about a horizontal axis. It is not great but good enough for video chatting. It has USB and mini-USB ports, microphone, audio (headphone) output, HDMI video output, a micro-SD card slot, and (optionally) a 3G slot, for mobile broadband. It runs on the NVidia Tegra 2 processor, which compares well to the competition (and is used by much of the competition). The screen is glossy but a matte screen protector is included. The only complaint I have is the rather tacky look and feel of the white plastic band that runs around the machine, encasing the ports; but other than that, the machine looks and feels nice and solid.

SOFTWARE

Software is another matter. Notion Ink’s quandary was that Google’s Android system was developed for phones, not tablets. Google has since released a tablet version of Android, called “Honeycomb”, but not yet made it available to non-approved manufacturers. Notion Ink, therefore, built their own tablet interface, Eden, on top of the previous version of Android (2.2, “Froyo”). This has a somewhat unfinished feel to it: it has some nice ideas (such as applications optionally running in “panels”), but their ribbon-like launcher in unwieldy. The biggest problem, however, is the lack of the Android market (which is officially available only for phones, except in the Honeycomb version).

Luckily (and this is another big reason I went in for this tablet), Notion Ink decided to make their tablet rather open and “moddable”: if you don’t like their OS, you can install another, and — practically overnight — a large number of alternative ROMs have sprung up, including an attempt at Ubuntu Linux. These are available at a site called Notion Ink Hacks. I installed a ROM called EdenX, which makes rather minimal tweaks but gives “root” access and installs the Android Market and a few other applications. So far I am pretty happy with it. But one day I hope to run Linux (Ubuntu, Meego or something else) on this thing. (Yes, Android too is based on Linux, but it is completely unlike a normal Linux system.)

One of the first apps I installed from the marketplace was Amazon Kindle. My wife spent a while with it today and reported that it is extremely comfortable to read, with no eye strain. I also installed Adobe Reader (which seems much inferior to the QuickOffice PDF reader that comes pre-installed), Mozilla Firefox (again, it seems slower than the pre-installed Webkit-based browser), and Angry Birds. And that’s where it stands.

FUTURE

I expect I will use the Adam for reading, idle netsurfing, and perhaps playing games. I doubt I will use it for serious work — not even for email, primarily because typing on a touchscreen is tedious. (You can plug in an external keyboard: if I find a sufficiently small travel-friendly one, maybe I will go that route.)

There is certainly a market for tablet computers that are not Apple and not locked down in every direction by Steve Jobs. And while the Pixel Qi screen does not quite live up to its hype, it is still a big improvement on normal LCD screens for reading. So far, the Adam is the only device of significance shipping with a Pixel Qi screen, one of the most modifiable and extendable tablets around, and very reasonably priced (comparable with the iPad and cheaper than most competitors). With no advertising other than via their website and blog, Notion Ink succeeded in 2010 in generating huge interest around the world, and rapidly selling out their pre-orders. But, as things stand, not only do they have issues in production, but their software has too many rough edges. So far they have reached what was probably their intended first market: early adopters and somewhat tech-savvy people. I very much hope that, in 2011, they will sort out their production issues, iron out their software, and establish a strong presence in the mainstream market.



UPDATE 17/04/2011: This is what the Pixel Qi screen looks outdoors, in the shade with the backlight off.

It is entirely readable in the shade (the odd angle was to avoid glare in the camera image, but you can hold it more naturally when you are reading it rather than photographing it). I spent about 10 minutes reading a document in QuickOffice and surfing the net. It should be even better in the sun, but this was Chennai in April at about 11:30 am, so I didn’t try the experiment.

Also, I have switched from EdenX to Beast ROM. This is nothing like Notion Ink’s default ROM and more like a mobile phone, but it works beautifully. And, DO NOT install Angry Birds if you value your productivity.

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11 Comments

  1. Damon Grace

     /  April 17, 2011

    I very much enjoyed your observations on the Notion Ink Adam — some of the most insightful and astute I have read online. I have had my Adam – the LCD Wifi version — for about 2 months now, and concur with most of what you have said. I am rather satisfied with the quality of the hardware, and general responsiveness of the tablet. But I am fairly dismayed with the quality of the LCD screen. It is not nearly as sharp and clear as my desktop PC monitor or my laptop screen. It is at best “fair to middling” in image quality, and as such, extended reading sessions tend to be more than a bit tedious. As 70% of what I do with the Adam involves reading online content, and locally-stored documents and books, you can imagine my disappointment with what promised to be a sterling hardware/software device. That being said, the fact that I paid only $375 (+$50 shipping) for it leaves me ultimately feeling fairly satisfied. I mean, let’s face it: I don’t believe there are currently any competitors that can match the Adam in overall value when it comes to the combination of hardware options (# of input/output ports, camera, micro SD slot, connectivity with external USB devices, etc) and price point. Similar devices of comparable value sell in the $600-800 price range. Not only this, but as you succinctly pointed out, it is a *lot* more open and less proprietary than probably any other tablet on the market. I’m hoping that Notion Ink is able to resolve its manufacturing and distribution problems and that we hear great things from this company in the coming days.

    Reply
  2. Excellent review.

    Give me a device that does not require using iTunes and I’m happy :)

    Reply
  3. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  April 17, 2011

    Damon – thanks for the feedback. It is indeed great value for money. It is disappointing to hear that the LCD screen seems blurry. One thing to note is both the LCD and Pixel Qi screen are a rather low resolution (1024×600) by current standards. My laptop, for example, is 1920×1200 on a 17-inch screen. So the sharpness doesn’t compare well, but, at least on my device, I am not complaining about the quality of the text. Recent comments from Rohan suggest that future models may have higher resolutions, like 1280×800.

    km – heh. As Charlie Brooker put it, “Even during the dark days of the animated paperclip, or the infuriating “.docx” Word extension, [Microsoft] never shat out anything as abominable as iTunes – a hideous binary turd that transforms the sparkling world of music and entertainment into a stark, unintuitive spreadsheet.”

    Reply
  4. Manu

     /  April 18, 2011

    Thanks for the review! I had been wondering what happened to the Adam ever since the hype from last year’s CES. And their website still seems a little devoid of information.

    Reply
  5. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  April 18, 2011

    Manu – yes, their website is not informative. It is also poorly laid out, and depends far too much on Flash — ironic since the Adam doesn’t ship with Flash (though it can be installed). Rohan’s blog is a better place to get information, and each of his posts typically has over 1000 comments by Notion Ink “fans” (till recently, a good fraction disgruntled at not yet receiving their orders). More recently they have opened an official forum. The two other places to go for information are Notion Addicts (user community, which receives some official help from Notion Ink, I believe) and Notion Ink Hacks (developer community, the place to go for rooting, performance tricks, alternate ROMs, etc… I don’t think they are endorsed by the company, but they are not frowned upon, either: Rohan said in interviews that he’s happy with this sort of activity. Presumably because it lets users access things that Notion Ink can’t legally offer, like Android Market.)

    Reply
  6. fanoush

     /  April 20, 2011

    I wonder how the Pixel QI LCD in Adam compares to OLPC XO display. The XO resolution is 1200 x 900 but this resolution counts R,G,B pixels separately (while conventional LCDs count RGB triplet as one pixel) more details are here http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Display

    When taking the strange pixel structure into account they say the XO display is roughly equivalent to 800×600 resolution in color mode.

    Has the Adam’s 1024×600 resolution same meaning as XO’s physical 1200 x 900 so the practical resolution for color mode is even worse on Adam then on XO or is the 1024×600 in fact much higher when counting R,G,B pixels separately?

    I have the XO laptop and find the color mode blurry to the point that it is uncomfortable to use in dark. I can clearly see the strange color pixel structure on borders of every shape (letters, lines) and find it distracting. I don’t like Cleartype/subpixel rendering technology on conventional LCDs for same reason and this feels even worse than cleartype to me.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  April 21, 2011

      Fanoush – I suspect the PQi display is a bit different from the OLPC display. The colour resolution is 1024×600 and, as far as I can tell, it looks like a normal LCD display, only a little less bright-looking than the newer AMOLED ones. With the backlight off, it looks the same, only grayscale. It does not appear three times sharper. Perhaps it’s a software thing: smarter software would recognise that the individual R,G,B pixels are each shades of grey, and adjust how each pixel is displayed, but right now I think there is no change in how the image is rendered when the backlight is turned off. It doesn’t look bad, but maybe it could look better.

      Reply
      • David Lang

         /  April 29, 2011

        the display itself can be addressed as a 3072 x 600 display, apparently it needs a fix the the video driver to be able to do this.

        Reply
        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  April 29, 2011

          David – thanks for the comments. Yes, after I left the previous comment I looked up Pixel Qi’s site and saw that they advertise 3072×600 monochrome. On the other hand, with subpixel hinting, that is also the resolution of text on the colour display. As far as I can tell, there is no difference in the rendering of the text with the backlight on and off. Perhaps, with a good driver, the text will be sharper with the backlight off.

          Reply
  7. David Lang

     /  April 28, 2011

    the current pixelqi display has two modes it can operate in, 1024×600 color and 3072×600 monochrome

    on the olpc it switched to the monochrome mode when you turned the backlight completely off, I haven’t been able to get an Adam yet (I want one, but was watching rather than commenting in the blog, so I wasn’t eligible for a ‘pre-order’) this makes a very significant difference.

    I also have a white kindle DX with it’s e-ink display, and I will say that the 1st generation e-ink display is about the same or slightly better than the OLPC display. the latest generation kindles have a updated display with significantly better contrast (and response time)

    for a reader, I definitely want to have an e-ink display, but due to it’s slow response time, I don’t think I would want it on a tablet (I may pick up a nook and load android on it to see how bad it is), if you need the ability to do color or view rapidly moving things (which don’t have to be video, it could be something as simple as a mouse pointer), you need something other than a e-ink display, and if you want to operate outside, a traditional backlit display is horrid, while a pixelqi display works quite well.

    back in the early 90’s Radio Shack sold a low-end laptop with a monochrome display that worked well in bright light. it was very popular for people on the go who needed to use it outside, but when it was retired (as technology and speeds moved on) it wasn’t replaced because everyone wanted color. the pixelqi display seems to cover both use cases.

    Reply
  8. Jatkesha

     /  April 29, 2011

    Good to know that I am not the only one addicted to Angry Birds :-)

    Reply

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